Tribute to Doctor Gilbert Kombe

Dr. Kombe

Dr. Kombe

Washington Post Staff Writer-Most of Gilbert Kombe’s brothers in Kitwe, Zambia, are engineers. But as he grew up, he noticed that what his family talked about most often was sickness and health, as relatives became ill, recovered or plotted how to avoid disease.

His family, he decided, had enough engineers. What it needed was a physician.

Because Zambia follows the British system of admitting only the very top students to its medical schools, the aspiring physician was directed into the study of electrical engineering. It wasn’t until he was three years into college that his father, an educator, discovered a new exchange program with China that offered full scholarships for promising young Zambians. The Kombe family jumped at the offer, and Gilbert set off halfway around the globe with 10 of his countrymen to become a medical doctor.

Dr. Kombe, 49, who died Nov. 6 at Sibley Memorial Hospital after a stroke, practiced in China and Africa before coming to the Washington area in 1993. He was a leader in the international effort to respond to HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

The Takoma Park resident ran a $200 million contract for Abt Associates to help organizations deliver HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in 114 countries. He designed programs in infectious disease prevention, substance abuse prevention, and maternal and children’s health. He championed federal legislation reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

In China, he plunged into eight months of intensive study of Mandarin in Beijing. Tongji Medical University in Wuhan, which offered an accelerated five-year medical degree, taught all its classes in another dialect, which required additional study. Three of his Zambian classmates, unable to keep up with the difficult studies and languages, quit. Dr. Kombe didn’t; he rose to the top 10 in his class of 400 and stayed there throughout his schooling. In 1991, he graduated with a bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery degree.

He met his wife, an English teacher from Massachusetts, on her first day at the school, and by the time he graduated, they knew they would marry.

“He was the big-picture thinker, and I was the detail person,” said Karin Theophile Kombe, and he insisted that they finish their schooling before they started a life together. So Dr. Kombe returned to Zambia, where his next four years were spent practicing medicine, training the country’s Red Cross volunteers, setting up a diarrhea prevention program for the city of Kitwe during a cholera epidemic and reorganizing the local hospital.

Dr. Kombe moved to Washington and settled with his wife in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. His first few days in the United States were a shock because he hadn’t expected to see poverty here. “He came home and said: ‘Those brown paper bags people are holding? They’re drinking alcohol from them, in the morning! How can they do that when there are free libraries here?’ ” his wife recounted. Unaccustomed to the culture of American poverty, he began working within three weeks at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, where the homeless developed an intense loyalty to him.

“We’d be walking somewhere, and a man lying in the gutter would open his crusty eyes and say, ‘Hey, there’s my doctor!’ ” Karin Theophile Kombe said. “He’d always ask how’s the leg, or how is the wound healing.”

Dr. Kombe also enrolled at George Washington University, where he received a master’s degree in public health and became an assistant professor at its School of Public Health and Health Services, training Eastern and Central European health-care workers. He co-directed a team of researchers that gave the District data on the substance abuse problem among Hispanic residents. In 2001, he joined Abt Associates in Bethesda as senior HIV/AIDS technical adviser for a project funded by the Agency for International Development.

Although pharmaceutical companies pursued him, he refused to seek the private sector salary that would make his life easier. He financially supported his mother, Hildah C. Kombe of Kitwe, and paid for the schooling of many relatives in Zambia. But he told his wife that his reasons for becoming a physician had nothing to do with the jobs being offered.

One of the issues that underdeveloped countries face is a dearth of well-trained medical professionals, he said in 2005, noting that Zambia had only 687 doctors for its 10.9 million people and that Ethiopia has a little more than 1,200 doctors for a population of 72 million. “Human resource constraints may be as important as budgetary constraints,” he told the XV International HIV/AIDS Conference in Bangkok.

Although he traveled a great deal, Dr. Kombe volunteered as an assistant coach on the local soccer teams of his children, Adrian and Emily Kombe. He had a bond with children, friends said, able to get their attention with soft-spoken words and a gentle way of teaching them how to stretch and alleviate muscle or ankle pain, or how to build a backyard ramp for skateboarding.

Patient and gentle, Dr. Kombe was “a rare combination of being an extremely smart technical expert and an advocate,” Eric Friedman, senior global health policy adviser with Physicians for Human Rights, said. “How many people who never knew him are healthier — and alive — because of his work and commitment.”

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